Noted psychiatrist and author Lifton (Psychiatry and
Psychology/John Jay College) contends that the self is less
traumatized by modern rootlessness than we might expect. Lifton's
preoccupation with the macabre in his work on survivors of the
Holocaust (The Genocidal Mentality, 1990, etc.) and Hiroshima
brought to his attention the phenomenon of human resilience in the
wake of the most terrible suffering. Here, he offers a sustained
study of how people manage to take up new attitudes and endeavors
in response to the constant change and instability of modern,
especially American, life. Drawing on interviews with poor blacks,
social activists, and the children of immigrants, and quoting
Zeitgeist figures like Paul Klee and Andy Warhol, he argues that
the self turns out to be surprisingly malleable: In true American
fashion, it continually evolves into new possibilities. For Lifton,
such transformation involves personal choice and effort, and the
"protean" path is taken when we're open to change and respond
positively to the lack of bearings in our world. Noteworthy here is
the author's balanced and perceptive analysis of religious
fundamentalism as a negative psychological response to change - but
although he acknowledges that "proteanism" has its dark side, many
of his informants seem to owe more to Kerouac than to Ben Franklin,
and thus belie his basically upbeat tone. Moreover, while Lifton no
doubt wants readers to make up their own minds, his text is so
overburdened with quotes that it's easy to lose track of what he's
trying to say. In particular, he doesn't tell us exactly what he
means by "symbolization," by his vision of the greater "species"
self, or, for that matter, by the "self" itself. An almost
convincing account of how to make virtue out of a necessity.
"Proteanism"--or the protean self--describes a psychological
phenomenon integral to our times. We live in a world marked by
breathtaking historical change and instantaneous global
communication. Our lives seem utterly unpredictable: there are few
absolutes. Rather than collapsing under these threats and pulls,
Robert Jay Lifton tells us, the self turns out to be remarkably
resilient. Like the Greek god Proteaus, who was able to change
shape in response to crisis, we create new psychological
combinations, immersing ourselves in fresh and surprising endeavors
over our lifetimes.
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